Sunday, December 6, 2009

Yellow Cake with Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting

I do not come from a family of cooks. My mother has a handful of dishes that she makes well – most of them odd Adventist concoctions such as Chik’n Rice and fried Fri-Chik
– and she can even make a decent filling for an apple pie, though my powers are insufficient to persuade her that butter makes a much nicer crust than margarine. Old habits die hard.

My grandmother also has a handful of faithful standbys. Everyone loves her stuffing. She makes a good vegetarian chili, and I’ve always enjoyed her potato salad.

Still, neither of them are culinarily adventurous women. They are not philosophically opposed to processed food, and neither ever passes up an opportunity to combine condensed cream of mushroom soup with vegetables, pasta, or rice and call it a meal. And hey, even I like this sort of thing … sometimes. But given that these ladies live in Florida – where you can get excellent, farm-fresh produce all year long of the sort I can only wistfully dream of in Connecticut – their near-exclusive reliance on foods that could survive a nuclear holocaust continues to baffle me.

Anyway, on the Saturday (Adventist Sabbath) after Thanksgiving, much of the family was still around and had planned to assemble at my grandmother’s for the traditional post-church meal. This meal must needs include massive quantities of dessert. We still had several half-eaten Thanksgiving pies, but grandma thought the meal required something else, lest we run out of sweets. A nice yellow cake with chocolate frosting would be good, she suggested. She wondered if my mom and I would pick up some cake mix at Publix.

My mother, to her credit, understood immediately that we would not be preparing cake-mix cake. I’m all for cooking shortcuts, and I can be low-brow about some things. I use the parmesan cheese that comes in a green cylinder, for example. But I don’t do cake mixes. Prepared mix cakes call to mind nothing so much as sea sponge soaked in corn syrup. And you don’t even want to get me started on frosting-in-a-tub. I’d sooner pour house paint over my food … and would probably prefer the flavor.

Since I was also charged with making the entrée for our Sabbath meal – a task for which I volunteered – I didn’t have the time or energy to scour the internet for recipes. My grandma asked for plain yellow cake with chocolate frosting, so that’s what she would get. I recalled seeing this recipe on Smitten Kitchen a couple of months ago, and my luck with her recipes has been good – so I went with it.

Given that this was made in a rush, I really didn’t futz with the recipe. Adventists don’t drink, so there was no booze in the house; otherwise, I would probably have tossed in my usual glug of amaretto. I didn’t feel like buying cake flour that would molder in the back of the cupboard and attract weevils after I left, so I substituted a slightly reduced amount of all-purpose flour. The cake was light, airy, and soft, but cake flour would probably have made for a tenderer crumb.

So my grandma is a lovely, lovely lady who was born in 1927. This is a long way of saying she was a child of the Great Depression, i.e. very frugal, and does her kitchenware ever show it. Trying to bake in such an environment feels like some nightmarish Top Chef challenge.

Grandma’s cake pans are tiny aluminum tins that look to be original to her 1947 marriage. I’d complain about their lack of nonstick coating, except it probably hadn’t been invented when she got them.

Since grandma isn’t much of a baker, there was no parchment paper with which to line these sad little containers. I greased and floured as much as I could, but I still feared for my layers, and my fears proved to be well-founded … more on that later.

Instead of the usual buttercream, this cake calls for a sour cream-based frosting, and that’s what really makes the cake pop. I would have never thought of making frosting from sour cream and chocolate, but they go together wonderfully and create a frosting that is subtle, not too sweet, and not too heavy. It’s sweetened with corn syrup instead of powdered sugar. Given my longstanding hatred for that nefarious liquid, I worried it would ruin the flavor, but I didn’t even notice it. Maybe it’s some other chemical that prevents me from warming to soda.

I’m sure the original recipe envisions the use of high-quality semisweet chocolate in the frosting. I’m a bit of a cheapskate and just used semi-sweet chocolate chips (and store brand at that). They didn’t melt so well, so to incorporate them into the sour cream frosting, I had to use an electric mixer instead of just whisking everything together as the original recipe suggests.

Using electric beaters made the frosting expand exponentially. This wasn’t a bad thing, as I thought the “whipped” appearance and texture were really nice and made the frosting feel less heavy. I didn’t realize quite how much frosting I had when I began finishing the cake, so you’ll notice in the picture that there’s nearly 1” of frosting atop the cake and a far more modest amount between the layers. Live and learn, and if you use electric beaters, be prepared to really spackle on the frosting.

In sum: if you’re looking for a simple yellow cake recipe, this is a good one. But for the love of God (and of even cake layers), do use nonstick bakeware or line your cake tins with parchment paper. Because worrying if you’ll ever disengage layers of cake from their tins while basking in their heavenly, fresh-baked smell is an unpleasant and worrying exercise, and one I hope to spare you. I’m generous like that.

Yellow Cake with Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting
4 cups all-purpose flour (or 4 cups plus 2 tablespoons of cake flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken – I would advise using actual buttermilk, and not the milk-and-lemon-juice trick for this

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch round cake tins and line the bottoms with parchment paper (and grease the parchment paper). Baking spray is your friend here.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar with electric mixer until fluffy, then add vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each egg. Add the buttermilk with the mixer on low speed and mix just until combined – it will look a little lumpy.

Add the flour mixture in three batches, mixing each time just until incorporated.

Spread batter evenly in cake pans. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then remove from pans (it helps to run a knife around the edge of the tin if the edges adhere to the pan) and cool completely before frosting.

Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting:
15 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped (or, you know, chocolate chips)
1 1/4 teaspoons instant espresso (I didn’t use this because my family doesn’t drink coffee and would have been horrified)
2 1/4 cups sour cream, at room temperature – it’s very important that it be at room temperature
1/4 to 1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the chocolate and espresso powder, if using, in the top of a double-boiler or in a heatproof bowl over simmering water. Stir until the chocolate is melted. Alternately, you can just microwave them together in a heat-proof bowl, removing and stirring at 15 second intervals until melted. Remove from heat and let chocolate cool until tepid but still liquid.

Whisk together the sour cream, 1/4 cup of the corn syrup and vanilla extract until combined. Add the tepid chocolate slowly and stir quickly until incorporated. If there are lumps, you can use an electric mixer; this will give you the nice whipped effect shown. Taste for sweetness, and if needed, add additional corn syrup a tablespoon at a time until you’re happy with the flavor.

Let cool in the refrigerator until the frosting is thick enough to spread, which should be within half an hour. If it becomes too thick, just let it sit at room temperature until it’s warmed again. If the frosting sets up too much, just leave it out until it softens again.

I would advise storing the frosted cake in the fridge, as this frosting is really too soft for room temperature. A possible exception to this would be “room temperature in my poorly insulated New England apartment at the end of November,” but since I baked this cake in Florida, it definitely belonged in the refrigerator.

Printable recipe here.


  1. Thanks! It really was quite tasty. :)

  2. Wish I could share this on my facebook page, absolutely fantastc icing!

  3. I have been looking for a cake from scratch recipe all over the internet. I even tried one that came out okay and then thought, "Which baking recipes have I had the most success with?" I'm wanting to make my daughter's birthday cake...perfect solution!

  4. I hope you and your daughter enjoy it as much as we did!

  5. Hi Becky, I made this yellow cake and posted about it. A few little mishaps but it was superb! Thanks for sharing. I am a new follower.

  6. Glad you enjoyed it despite the mishaps!